The New Urban Agriculture
Washington | Covelo | London
Copyright © 2009 Darrin Nordahl
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No
part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the publisher: Island Press, Suite 300, 1718 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009.
ISLAND PRESS is a trademark of The Center for Resource Economics.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Public produce : the new urban agriculture / Darrin Nordahl.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-1-59726-587-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-59726-587-X (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-59726-588-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-59726-588-8 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Urban agriculture—United States. 2. Food
supply—United States. I. Title.
Printed on recycled, acid-free paper
Manufactured in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Keywords: agritourism; community health; Davenport, Iowa; Davis, California; food
equity; food policy; food safety; food security; foraging; gleaning; public policy; public
space; urban agriculture; urban design; urban farming
Public Space, Public Officials, Public Policy
To Glean and Forage in the City
Maintenance and Aesthetics
Community Health and Prosperity
was a year many hope to forget, but it will likely remain burned
in our memories. For the first time in our nation’s history, gaso-
line prices exceeded four dollars a gallon across the country. And it was a time
when the many loose threads of our economy seemed to simultaneously be
pulled in every direction, unraveling the very fabric of our lives. In 2008, this nation witnessed millions of lost jobs and sobering levels of unemployment; the
subprime mortgage crisis, the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the
subsequent swelling rates of home foreclosures; the free fall of our most revered
investment banks and retailers; the loss of billions of dollars in retirement accounts and investments, affecting countless people, from the middle-class
working stiff to the überwealthy caught up in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi-scheme
scandal; and the buckling of one the largest and greatest industries in the history
of our nation, the Big-Three automobile manufacturers.
And then there was Mother Nature’s wrath. In 2008, floods across the Midwest, drought along the coasts, ice storms, power outages, and weather anomalies across the Southeast and Northeast offered further proof that climate
change is, indeed, real. Families were displaced, lives were lost, crops were
ruined, and America’s downfall in the global economy had devastating effects
on developed and developing countries around the world.
Amid the economic and climatic turmoil, the price of our food and the
numbers of this nation’s hungry skyrocketed. The year 2008 kicked off the worst
financial crisis since the Great Depression. And 2008 marked the first year since
the 1930s that many Americans were truly beginning to wonder where their
next meal would come from.
This book began years ago, in more prosperous and secure economic times,
as a topic for my students at the University of California Berkeley Extension.
Public produce then was simply an idea to showcase how public space and public policy could work together to reduce food insecurity for the destitute and the
perennially hungry. But during the economic downturn that began to unfold in
2008, it quickly became apparent that people across the country, even the middle class, could soon be joining the ranks of our nation’s most deprived.
Early in my research, many had argued that this idea of public produce to
aid those truly afflicted by the rising cost of food is likely infeasible. And even if
it were feasible, they insisted, it would only be remotely effective on the “Left
Coast,” where people are liberal and the climate mild. Since 2008, people’s
minds, like the climate, have been changing. In light of the seemingly daily
headlines announcing the rising cost of produce, the weather aberrations and
subsequent crop loss, the pathogen-infected produce, the falling out of favor of
“industrial organic,” and the insatiable demand for locally grown produce, folks
are beginning to admit that a public network of food-growing opportunities
could benefit more people than just the utterly impoverished. Though this book
focuses heavily on social equity, aimed principally at those with little choice
with regard to food, it is meant to illustrate that regardless of one’s financial
station in life, there are benefits, both individual and communal, to returning
our urban lifestyle to its agrarian roots, and reinstating a modicum of selfsustenance.
Economies are usually cyclical. While circumstances today are dire, prosperity is out there somewhere on the horizon. But in the face of unprecedented
global warming, those times of prosperity may be more sporadic and unpredictable than they were following the Great Depression. Climate change, as the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported at the dawn of
2009, is irreversible. Well, at least for the next thousand years anyway.
With global warming comes an unstable climate, and with an unstable climate comes an unstable food supply. Petroleum prices will continue to increase,
and our nation’s food—which is inextricably linked to oil—will see price increases as well. Though oil prices fell shortly after they spiked in 2008, the relief
is likely ephemeral. Until communities figure out how to provide for themselves, instead of relying on a handful of petrophilic agribusinesses in remote locations in our country and abroad, our satiety will be tenuous.
There is a good deal of focus on California and Iowa in this book, which can be
expected, as they are the two states I call home. As such, they are where I have
witnessed firsthand the many innovative ideas toward public food production.
But I have also chosen to highlight these two seemingly different landscapes
(and cultures) to help prove that food is the great equalizer. In the culinary
world of haute cuisine, California and Iowa could not be more different. Yet, in
light of the demand for fresh, wholesome food at an affordable price, expanding
waistlines, crop failures from an eccentric climate, and increasing instances of
poverty and hunger, Iowa and California may as well be conjoined. Though I
sometimes think Iowa and much of the Midwest are ten years behind the
progress and innovation being made on the coasts, the Midwest is, for once, actually keeping pace with—and in some cases exceeding—the pioneering policies that are being adopted along the typically more progressive edges of our
What has typically been a grassroots approach to food security (e.g., community activists lobbying local government officials to allow modest community gardens on vacant lands owned by the city) is now becoming an endeavor
initiated by government staff. While this top-down approach to community
food security is good news for food advocates, it is not particularly newsworthy.
The topic of public produce—which can more descriptively be defined as
municipal agriculture—does not receive a lot of publicity or fanfare, so it is
difficult to unearth research on this topic. As such, many municipalities are
implementing programs more or less from scratch. It is my intent to showcase a
few innovative policies and implementation strategies that are currently happening across the country, to illustrate the breadth of innovation, provide a
modest list of resources, and more importantly, further encourage thought and
discourse on the subject. Though the municipal agriculture movement is nascent, it is burgeoning, moving quickly from ideation to palpability.
Much of the information I have gleaned comes from Internet research,
word of mouth, and, most prevalent, direct observations of what communities
are doing in the arena of municipal agriculture. There is not yet an abundant
supply of published material dealing specifically with this topic. Yet, it seems
that daily a new headline appears on the rising cost of food, pathogen outbreaks,
obesity and diabetes, and the growing demand for local food options. I will venture a guess that the current paucity of published work devoted to the concept
of public produce will soon be a thing of the past.
A little more than twenty years ago, a book could have been published that
espoused the environmental benefits of recycling and urged municipalities to
organize citywide recycling programs so that everyone in the community had
the ability to lessen their ecological footprint. Such a book would be pointless
today. Cities across the nation now realize the environmental good that comes
with recycling. Public officials have figured out how to collect, sort, and recycle a
variety of materials and how to effectively educate their citizens on what to recycle and why recycling is good for them and their community.
It is my sincerest hope that in twenty years, a book espousing municipal-organized agriculture will also be pointless. By that time, public officials across the
nation will have implemented a variety of strategies to produce food throughout the city so that everyone in the community has the ability to eat healthy,
whenever and wherever. They will have figured out how to grow, maintain, harvest, and process an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, while creating
beautiful and inspiring edible landscapes. Programs will have been created to
educate citizens about food and food choices, and why municipal agriculture,
like recycling, is good for them and their community. In twenty years, Public
Produce will be out of print, and there will be no reason for its resurrection.
reward awaits those crossing the Potomac on the footbridge from Theo-
dore Roosevelt Island to the George Washington Parkway. At least, that is
how my friend and I thought of the lone apple tree on the western bank of the
river. The two of us were headed back to the car after exploring the memorial island, feeling hot, tired, and a bit hungry. Apparently, others before us had discovered this treat, as most of the apples left on the tree were out of reach. We
managed to grab one apple each, and, though they were still a couple of weeks
from being ripe, the tart green fruit provided momentary satiety and invigorated our spirits.
That apple tree, a solitary symbol of an agrarian landscape in an otherwise
intensely urban setting, caught us by surprise. Though we were getting hungry,
we were not seeking food, especially within our immediate surrounds. After all,
it is rare that one stumbles across fresh, free produce in the middle of a big city.
For a city whose lore and landscape are so entwined with cherry trees, why
something as seemingly innocuous as a fruit tree—any fruit tree—should provoke wonderment was a bit puzzling.
Perhaps we were caught unawares because, even in our nation’s capital,
where more than three-thousand iconic cherry trees have become one of the
city’s premier tourist attractions, we are accustomed to plants in the urban environment providing simple aesthetics, rather than wholesome nourishment. The
Kwanzan cherry, the specific variety that makes up the bulk of the cherry trees in
East Potomac Park, is a fruitless cultivar. The Yoshino cherry—the principal cultivar that encircles the Tidal Basin and punctuates the Washington Monument
grounds—does produce fruit, though it is stony and unpalatable to all but birds.
There is no denying the poetic beauty of these trees—a generous gift from
Japan—whose showy blossoms are an allegory of friendship. Yet, I wonder, if
flowers can be an accepted symbol of goodwill and inspire all who gaze upon
them, can fruit become an accepted symbol of equity, for all to eat?
Three thousand miles west of that apple tree near Teddy Roosevelt Island, at
the other end of U.S. 50, apple orchards command tourist attention. During the
ripening months of September and October, throngs of urbanites retreat to an
area known as “Apple Hill” simply for the opportunity to harvest fresh apples.
These tourists travel to this Sierra Nevada locale from all over northern California, many from as far away as the Bay Area. That people are willing to drive 140
miles from San Francisco for the unique experience of picking apples off the
tree is testament to how hungry urbanites are for a bit of agrarianism.
Apple Hill and other “U-pick” farms throughout the country are part of a
fast-growing industry known as “agritourism.” For an hour, a day, or a week,
agritourism sites and excursions allow the urbanite to escape the trappings of
city life, promising personal rejuvenation through the agrarian experience. Opportunities to pick fruits and vegetables, help work the land, taste fresh honey,
milk, and eggs, or even crush grapes and make wine compel the agritourist.
Spending good money and free time on an agrarian experience might seem
absurd to our forefathers. But the success of agritourism—its raison d’être, in
fact—stems from a growing citizenry that has lived life never having plucked a
berry from the bush or an apple from the tree. In a nation with such deep agrarian roots, it is almost inconceivable that today there would be such a chasm between the American family and the farm. But shortly after World War II, during
the urban renewal of our inner cities and the sprawling development of our
suburban settlements, the small family farms, public gardens, and individual
produce markets and stands disappeared. And with the disappearance of these
once-ubiquitous displays of food and food production, we forgot what was once
common knowledge: where food comes from, how to grow it, and when it is
ready to eat.
Like other land patterns in post–World War II city development, there was
no longer room for farms or fussy edible landscapes. Cities were to be streamlined and compartmentalized, with the home, workplace, marketplace, and
open space all separated from each other. The zoning that mandated the separation of land uses also prohibited agriculture within the more urbanized neighborhoods of the city. Once the land uses were separated and the impurities of
agriculture removed, a new settlement was born, one that commanded cleaner
landscaping: well manicured, sterile varieties of trees, shrubs, and ground
Suburban sprawl picked up where zoning laws left off and pushed agriculture activities even further from the city center. Those farms not consumed by
residential subdivisions became aggregated with other farms. As such, the second half of the twentieth century saw the number of farms in America dwindle
from more than six million in 1940 to just two million at the dawn of the new
And so, the agricultural paradigm had shifted. The pervasive ideology of
the mid-twentieth century became that food production was no longer suitable
in and around our cities, as it had been for centuries. Growing fruits and vegetables was no longer the work of community-minded individuals and families on
small local farms, but endeavors better suited to corporate-owned, factory-like
“agribusiness” in more distant parts of the country.
Now, as the twenty-first century is underway, a cresting wave is readying the
backlash against large-scale corporate agriculture on fields hundreds—if not
thousands—of miles from where we live; against mass-produced, chemically
grown produce; against the rising costs of food and the declining health of the
American people. The organic movement is ceding to the “buy-local” movement; fast food has become a pejorative term,2 while “slow food” seems to be
the choice of the future. Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture
groups (CSAs), and small produce stands are part of a burgeoning system of local agriculture that is enjoying a popularity not witnessed in more than half a
century. And the time is ripe to explore how we can expand this network of local
food options to meet the growing demand of consumers by bringing agriculture
back into our cities.
This book explores the role of food-growing opportunities in the development of our cities, and the options of gathering food from the urban environment. Admittedly, it is unrealistic to believe that in the near future Americans
will only eat locally grown, seasonally available produce. We will still want bananas, oranges, and avocados even if we live in Wisconsin, or tomatoes, peppers,
and corn in February, regardless of where we live. It is also unrealistic to assume
that urban Americans will move to the countryside and completely return to
subsistence agriculture. This book is about providing food choices within the
city—where the majority of the U.S. population lives today, and with continued
urbanization projected—and about how to achieve healthful, low-cost supplements to our diet. Public Produce examines local food options through the lens
of social equity: closing the food gap between the inner-city poor (and increasingly the lower-middle and middle class) and the high prices of supermarket
organic and farmers’ market produce; improving the health of the American
population, especially our children, who increasingly lack everyday accessibility to fresh produce; setting aside land so that apartment and condominium
dwellers—who have little, if any, land to sow—can have the same opportunity
to grow gardens as homeowners; providing a sense of self-sufficiency to even the
well-to-do by giving them an opportunity to forage; and recognizing the social
relationships and prosperous citizenry that could result if city spaces could help
provide food for all.
Toward the goal of food justice, this book is specifically about fresh produce
grown on public land, and thus available to all members of the public—for
gathering or gleaning, for purchase or trade. And, because this food is grown on
public land, this book examines the efforts, programs, and policies that are being ushered and implemented by local governments. If a network of locally
available, publicly accessible produce is to be successful, the largest single landowner within the city—the municipality itself—will have to be engaged.
The idea that municipal government should shape the food supply in the
face of increased costs is not a new idea. In 1977, the City of Hartford, Connecticut, devised an initiative to address the increasing cost of food available to the
city’s lower-income residents. Hartford’s initiative was in direct response to the
fecklessness of the federal programs available at the time—namely the Food
Stamp Program and School Breakfast Program. The initiative focused on fooddistribution projects that not only helped close the food gap between supermarket produce and the inner-city poor, but provided an economic boost to Connecticut’s farmers, butchers, canners, and other food processors. But Hartford’s
initiative also focused on the establishment of facilities to nurture a system of
public produce within the city itself: community and youth gardens, solar
greenhouses, cold frames, and rooftop production—all on land and within
structures provided by the municipality.3
At the heart of these pleas for a more equitable system of food production is
food security: daily access to an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable, and
safe food. The recent outbreaks of Escherichia coli (E. coli) infecting spinach
from California and Salmonella contaminating peppers packed in Texas,
peanuts in Georgia, and pistachios in California, reveal that our fresh-produce
farms and distribution centers may not be as safe and sterile as we thought. Climate change that is producing drought in California and Florida, at the same
time as flooding in Iowa, is reducing crop yields. Pest infestations are reducing
crop yields as well. California is grappling with the light brown apple moth, a
problematic little bugger that has fluttered into the state from Australia. Its diet
not only consists of apples, but of almost every crop the state produces. Florida
Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy notes, “Our office is
getting reports of at least one new pest or disease of significant economic concern per month.”4 California and Florida provide much of the variety of our nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. It is unfortunate that relatively isolated
agricultural problems in a couple of states are felt nationwide, but such is the
nature of our current food-supply system. As a measure of insurance, this is perhaps reason enough to employ a more local, public system of food production.
Weather anomalies, pest infestations, and bacterial contaminations obviously limit the food supply, which in turn drives up prices. But there is another,
Author Darrin Nordahl Isbn 1597265888 File size 1.3MB Year 2009 Pages 200 Language English File format PDF Category Architecture Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Public Produce makes a uniquely contemporary case not for central government intervention, but for local government involvement in shaping food policy. In what Darrin Nordahl calls municipal agriculture, elected officials, municipal planners, local policymakers, and public space designers are turning to the abundance of land under public control (parks, plazas, streets, city squares, parking lots, as well as the grounds around libraries, schools, government offices, and even jails) to grow food. Public agencies at one time were at best indifferent about, or at worst dismissive of, food production in the city. Today, public officials recognize that food insecurity is affecting everyone, not just the inner-city poor, and that policies seeking to restructure the production and distribution of food to the tens of millions of people living in cities have immediate benefits to community-wide health and prosperity. This book profiles urban food growing efforts, illustrating that there is both a need and a desire to supplement our existing food production methods outside the city with opportunities inside the city. Each of these efforts works in concert to make fresh produce more available to the public. But each does more too: reinforcing a sense of place and building community; nourishing the needy and providing economic assistance to entrepreneurs; promoting food literacy and good health; and allowing for serendipitous sustenance. There is much to be gained, Nordahl writes, in adding a bit of agrarianism into our urbanism. Download (1.3MB) Contemporary Urban Landscapes of the Middle East Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes Landscape And Urban Design For Health And Well-being Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in European Culture Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities (2nd edition) Load more posts